Here we go again. Another new year, another effort to make men vulnerable. This time it’s the “Men’s Project” at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Available only to “men-identified” students, its goal is to “create a sense of security in vulnerability” by operating through a “transformative model of social justice allyship.”
As the College Fix notes, Wisconsin’s program is hardly unique. Programs designed to combat “toxic masculinity” are popping up across the fruited plain. Designed to end “harm, oppression, and dominance,” they look suspiciously like the same liberal critique I’ve been hearing my entire adult life. Men would be better men if only they were more like women. And “vulnerability” is the key.
Indeed, traditional concepts of masculinity, which asked men to cultivate physical and mental toughness, to assume leadership roles in the home, in business, and on the battlefield, and to become guardians and protectors, became the “trap” or “man box,” to quote the University of Richmond’s ridiculous “authentic masculinities” site. The most destructive words a boy can hear? “Be a man,” at least according to the mandatory freshman orientation at Gettysburg College.
But here’s the problem — vulnerability isn’t a virtue. It’s a morally neutral characteristic at best and a vice at worst. Yes, some men are more naturally sensitive than others, but we now ask — no, beg — men to indulge their emotions, as if the antidote to awful male aggression is a good cry.
There are good reasons why generations of fathers have taught their sons to “man up,” and it’s not because young boys are blank canvases on which the patriarchy can paint its oppression. It’s because men in general have essential natures that are different from women. We tend to be more aggressive, more energetic, and less nurturing than women, and the fundamental challenge of raising most boys is in channeling that nature in productive ways, not in denying or trying to eradicate its existence. In other words, we need to make men more purposeful, not more vulnerable.
What better equips a man to confront a difficult and challenging world? Is it more tears? Or is it more toughness?
We are failing in that key task. Feminism has infected child-rearing and modern education so thoroughly that legions of parents and teachers are adrift and clueless. They have no idea what to do with their sons, and absent fathers compound the confusion and create yawning cultural voids. Yes, there are some pajama boys out there, the guys who embrace the feminist project (truthfully in part to hook up with feminist women), but there are countless others who reject feminism’s version of a “man box” and are instead adrift in purposeless masculinity.
Here is the key question — what better equips a man to confront a difficult and challenging world? Is it more tears? Or is it more toughness? Is it teaching men to be compassionate or to be objects of compassion? The vulnerable male’s cry is “help me.” The masculine male’s quest is to become the helper.
No matter what feminists say or do, boys will be boys. Feminists can’t change hormones and brain chemistry, and they can’t alter the fundamental biology of the human male. Boys will continue to be stronger and more aggressive than girls no matter how many peer-reviewed articles decry biologically based gender stereotyping. Campus radicals choose to deny rather than deal with reality, and in denying reality they increase human misery.
Boys will be boys, but they won’t all become men. At their best, shorthand admonitions such as “man up” or “be a man” carry with them the weight of tradition and morality that makes a simple, though difficult request: Deny self. Don’t indulge your weakness. Show courage. Avoid the easy path. Some men fall naturally into this role, for others it’s much more difficult. The proper response to those who struggle is compassion. It’s not to redefine masculinity for the minority.
For a father, there are few more rewarding things in life than helping a son become a man, to watch him test himself in productive ways and to help him cultivate and demonstrate a protective spirit. Among the great gifts a father can give a son is a sense of masculine purpose, and no that purpose isn’t a “box,” it’s a powerful force for good.
— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.